Rethinking happiness

Repensar la felicidadThese last few weeks I’ve been finishing a book that, since a long time, was on my list of books pending: I speak of the work of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman think fast, Think slow.

Kahneman, a Nobel laureate in economics, has passed into the history of science for his work, along with Amos Tversky on cognitive biases and heuristics of reasoning. Think fast, think slow is the first work of disclosure of Kahneman, and represents a compendium of the main findings on our way of thinking that the psychologist has done in his long career: it is because of this that it is a work of informed, full of surprising facts, and a must-read for any person who is interested in the details of the way in which we reason.

Of all of the good chapters of the work, there are a few that I found especially interesting: the last four (35 – 38), in which Kahneman tells us about the findings that in the last years the psychology has contributed to a topic of special importance to the people, the concept of “happiness”.

I’m not going to make a complete summary of these chapters: rather, I’m going to write some key concepts, and invite the reader to go to work to get an image more specific.

Kahneman tells us the existence of two “I” (chapter 35), the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”. Both I are of great importance for the way in which we judge our happiness. Although the experiencing self is responsible for registering the sensations that we have of the events as they happen, the remembering self is that it gives a meaning to these experiences. And is that, as stated by Kahneman:

The memories are all that we retain of our life experience, and the only perspective that we can adopt when we think about our lives. (p. 496)

But there is a serious problem in our way of interpreting through the memory: we can confuse the memory of an experience with the experience itself. To illustrate this fact, Kahneman offers us a telling example:

A comment that I have heard of, or a member of the audience after a lecture illustrates the difficulty of distinguishing memories from experiences. He told how he was listening enraptured to a long symphony recorded on a disk that was scratched towards the end and produced a noise outrageous, and how this disastrous end “ruined the whole experience.” But the experience was not actually ruined, only the memory of the same. The experience as such had been almost completely good, and the bad result could not cancel because it had already happened. My questioner had assigned to the episode whole a degree of malfunction because it had ended very badly, but that degree of fact ignored 40 minutes of bliss music. What was so void of the real experience? (P. 496)

The remembering self seems to be sensitive to two phenomena related to the experience:

  • The rule of the peak end, according to which what we have in mind of an experience to appreciate it in its entirety, are the “spikes” of significant intensity
  • I forget the length: the duration of the experience does not usually take into account when valuing it

This sensitivity of I that reminds the peak end and the neglect of duration can have an effect little desirable as we value our happiness, or that of other people. Kahneman tells us about an experiment (chapter 36) with which the psychologist Ed Diener wanted to find out if the rule of the peak end and the forgetfulness of the duration could affect the evaluation of an entire life. To do this, it became the description of a fictional character called Jen, a woman who never married or had children who died suddenly and without suffering in a auto accident (p. 503). In one version of the story of his life, Jen was very happy, enjoying their work and their friendships, and cultivating their hobbies. In another version, it added 5 more years to the end of the life of Jen, who although were nice, they presented it as less good than the rest of your life.

In one phase of the experiment, participants read two versions of the story of the life of Jen, one after the other, and they valued how desirable it had been the life of Jen: the results showed that the subjects were clearly influenced by the effect of peak and end-I forget the duration, as they tended to think that add 5 years “passable” to an entire life of fullness and satisfaction that made this life to be the worst:

The intuition that the disappointing 5 years extras made the whole life but it was irresistible (p. 504)

So, when we evaluate our lives, it seems that the peak experience and the end has more importance than the duration of the same.

Another famous experiment shows to what extent the valuation of our happiness is influenced by factors spot (p. 138): a group of students were asked two questions: “do you feel too happy these days?”, and then “how many appointments had last month’”; another group were asked the same questions but in reverse order: first they were asked for the number of citations, and then by their level of happiness. The results showed that in the first group of students, the responses were not related, but in the second yes: students with a lower number of appointments said they feel less happy than those with a high number.

The emotions that the question of the invitations made to the surface were still in the mind of every one when it came to the question about their happiness in general. (p. 138)

What lies behind results such as the above is the phenomenon of substitution, which tries to answer difficult questions by finding the answer to other more simple (chapter 38):

Questions such as “What is your level of satisfaction with your life?” or “How is happy these days” are not as simple as the question “What is your phone number?” […] As happens with other questions, some people may have the answer ready, as have given on another occasion, the the they were asked to have an evaluation of your life. Others, probably the majority, do not find an immediate answer to the precise question that makes them, and automatically facilitate the work and replaced by the answer to another question. (p. 519)

This other answer may come determined by only a few feelings accessible at the time, and not by a careful evaluation of the total of our life:

It is likely that we think of important events of the recent past or near future, or concerns recurring, such as the health of the spouse or the bad company that your teenager frequents, or in important achievements and failures painful. We will occur a few ideas that seem relevant to the question, and others do not. Even if it is not influenced by accidents completely irrelevant […] the score without delay we give to our life is determined by a small sample of ideas that are immediately available to our mind, not by careful estimate made in the different areas of our life. (p. 520)

This is the essence of the call illusion of targeting, which, according to Kahneman can be described with the following formula:

Nothing in life is as important as we think when we think about it. (p. 524)

This illusion of targeting can be responsible for that we are mistaken about our current state of well-being and happiness of others, as well as on your happiness in the future, by the grant of a weight exaggerated to a factor punctual in happiness or overall well-being.

When we speak of future happiness, the illusion of targeting is intimately related to the so-called prediction error of affective, which:

We predisposes especially to exaggerate the effect of acquisitions or different circumstances on our future well-being. (p. 528)

And the prediction error affective is, in turn, the basis of the so-called miswanting, that is used to describe bad choices that arise from errors of prediction affective:

The illusion of focus creates a bias favoring goods and experiences that at first seem exciting, but eventually lost their attractiveness. Here there is a forgetfulness of the time that makes the experiences that preserve the value of the attention in the long run will be appreciated less than they deserve. (p. 529)

Let’s recap:

the valuation that we make of our happiness can be affected by the confusion between memory and experience, so that even a long life full of satisfactions can be seen as the least desirable on the basis of a few years end less graceful; in addition, the effect of substitution can make us to value our life and our well-being in function of a few ideas that at the time of assess are accessible in our memory (the illusion of focus), even if they are irrelevant to the overall evaluation; and finally, we may think that our future happiness can depend on a few circumstances to which we give a weight exaggerated and poorly justified, leading us to make bad choices.

As you can see the reader, the happiness is presented as a concept as complex and problematic in light of the study of the bias in the reasoning. As it says Kahnemam:

In the last ten years we have learned many new things about happiness. But we have also learned that the word happiness does not have a unique meaning and should not be used as it is used. Sometimes scientific progress leaves us more puzzled than we were before. (p. 530)


Kahneman, Daniel. Think fast, think slow. Barcelona: Debate, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-8483068618.


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